June 9, 2003, 6:53PM

Law on comp time isn't even on deputies' side


On June 5, AFL-CIO lobbyists defeated -- at least for now -- a Republican initiative in Congress to change overtime law so private-sector employees could "choose" whether to accept the fruits of their overtime labors in cash or compensatory time off at a later date.

U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, accused labor unions of "denying" working mothers and fathers the right to "choose" comp time. If at some future date Republicans are successful in their efforts to change the law, private-sector employees would ostensibly "choose" whether they want to be paid in cash or "banked" overtime for later use. It sounds good in theory.

A lot of people might believe that rhetoric, but Harris County deputy sheriffs, regardless of political persuasion, know better. We have "enjoyed" the so-called "right" to bank compensatory time for nearly two decades. Those of us who were around when Congress first enacted the comp-time provision remember that we were also supposed to get a "choice." After nearly two decades of court rulings, Harris County deputies get to choose very little.

We have no choice about when we work. Employee shortages at the sheriff's office, like many police agencies in the nation that cannot find qualified applicants, are at a crisis stage. Therefore, Harris County deputy sheriffs are scheduled to work forced overtime every shift of every day as a condition of employment. The only "choice" we have is to work double shifts or look for another job.

We have no choice about whether we will be paid for the overtime we work or have the time recorded in a comp-time bank. In the absence of collective bargaining, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 ruled that our employers are entitled to unilaterally establish rules about how employees' compensatory time will be "banked."

We sometimes get to choose when we can use our banked comp time; but in 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that our employer can force us to take off when they want us to "use" our accrued comp time. Comp-time was once billed as an opportunity for public employees to enjoy a "second vacation." It's hard to enjoy a "second vacation" in February when ordered with no notice to take off.

Too little consideration for its deputies, including its overtime policies, has resulted in a critical employee shortage at the Harris County Sheriff's Office. In 2002, the sheriff's office successfully attracted 207 new employees but lost 212 to attrition.

Private-sector employees would do well to heed a warning from the public-sector employees. They once were lured with the idea of storing overtime to use for unexpected family events. However, "comp time" is not about employees' families or choice; it's about depriving employees of overtime pay.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  June 13, 2003, 10:31PM

Sugar workers stage protests over severance


Lupe De La Cruz said that between him and his wife, they should receive about $50,000 in severance pay from the Imperial Sugar Co.

But the De La Cruzes, who lost their jobs earlier this month after the company shut its refinery and then its packaging and distribution operations, haven't seen a dime because the company contends the 455 terminated employees are not eligible for severance.

"We just want to get what we're owed that's in the contract," said the maintenance electrician who followed his grandfather and father into the Sugar Land plant.

The De La Cruzes, along with their two sons, were among a group of about 50 former Imperial Sugar employees who marched in front of the now-vacant plant Friday to complain they haven't received the severance pay, vacation pay or extra unemployment compensation they say they've got coming.

But Duffy Smith, senior vice president of Imperial Sugar, said employees are not entitled to severance payments under the terms of their contract except if the job losses were caused by technological improvements.

"It's very, very clear," Smith said.

Company officials had asked the union to renegotiate the existing contract, which would have provided some severance benefits to laid-off workers. The new proposal would also have allowed the company to choose which workers it wanted to work in its packaging and distribution operation instead of using a seniority system.

But officials of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 517 refused, contending that their reading of the contract requires the company to make the severance payments. And they said they would rather take the issue to an arbitrator than agree to a plan that offers far fewer weeks of severance pay.

That decision angered a group of employees who wanted a chance to vote on the company's proposal and keep at least a portion of the plant open.

A busload of the employees protested against the union Friday.

Former employees said they were also upset that they haven't been paid for their unused vacation time.

Melvin Crump, a forklift driver for 25 years, said he's been shorted 26 hours of vacation pay because the company changed the way it calculated what employees have coming.

And he's not getting the unemployment insurance supplement Imperial Sugar promised to pay that would provide 60 percent of an employee's weekly wage for up to 26 weeks, he said.

But Smith said that supplement applies only to layoffs caused by investments in technology.

As for vacation pay, Smith said employees have received "every minute of vacation they had coming."

While both sides argue over how to interpret the contract that will eventually be decided by an arbitrator, former employees say they've been heartened by the community support they've received, some by people the protesters didn't know.

One woman dropped off eight cases of bottled water at one protest rally, De La Garza said.

At another rally, a family drove by the plant slowly, dumping out bags of sugar on the roadway.

And city leaders of Sugar Land were planning to host a barbecue dinner for the terminated employees Friday night.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  June 13, 2003, 11:47PM

Words fly in battle for votes

El Paso, dissidents bicker over unions


Opposing sides in the fight over El Paso Corp.'s future engaged in a press of activity, including Friday's fresh jabs at each other, with a shareholder vote looming early next week. Dissident El Paso shareholders Selim Zilkha and Oscar Wyatt Jr. are fighting to replace the company's current board with a new slate that includes Zilkha, but not Wyatt. The past several days brought a flurry of shareholder letters, press releases and various back-and-forth barbs. One round started Friday after El Paso sent a statement on its commitment to using union contractors to some shareholders. The opposing camps are working to collect proxies, or the power to vote someone else's shares on their behalf. Votes will be cast at El Paso's annual shareholder meeting Tuesday. Mutual funds, public pension funds and union-sponsored pension funds are among El Paso's institutional shareholders. The New York State Common Retirement Fund, which is backing the dissidents, is an example of a public pension fund. Last week, the AFL-CIO endorsed the dissidents, saying it would press money managers of union-sponsored funds and other shareholders to back the dissidents. El Paso sent a statement Friday to some shareholders saying it is "committed to using union contractors" and noting that its experience shows unionized pipeline contractors are "highly skilled and competitive." The company has been working intensively for the past six months with unions to boost their share of pipeline construction and maintenance projects it contracts out, according to the statement. The note also says the budget the Zilkha group contemplates for El Paso's pipeline business would "offer a significantly lesser workflow to our union contractors." That budget, El Paso said, is lower than the budget the company expects to have. The company, in a statement, said it sent the letter because it believes the "Zilkha-Wyatt slate has been misrepresenting our position and, as a result, public pension funds asked us to clarify our position." The dissident side responded, saying: "We have no idea what they're talking about. We have not misrepresented anything." El Paso's letter shows it is "increasingly desperate," the Zilkha side said in a statement. "El Paso's attempt to link the election of our nominees with reduced work force levels for unions is completely misleading," it said. And it's outrageous to imply the budget it's contemplating for El Paso's pipeline business would reduce union labor, the Zilkha side said, adding there are many ways to cut costs and significant job cuts aren't in its plans.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle